Introducing the Class of 2022! L to R in photo above: Amanda Marquis (Burlington, VT), Haly Rylko (Seattle, WA), Rachel Tanzer (Arden, DE), Karen Tassinari (Wilbraham, MA), Genevieve Goldleaf (Schenectady, NY), Carlin Roland (Hancock, NH), Claire Baglien (Minneapolis, MN), Hope Matis (Brunswick, ME), Sean Hagan (Portland, ME), Veronica Chudik (Boston, MA), Jessica McSulla (Mountainside, NJ), John Rosenwinkel (Villa Park, IL), Dorothy Kinney-Landis (Guilford, VT), Evan Hendra (Oakham, MA), Elena Zachary (Northampton, MA), Harrison Takeno Houser (Whidbey Island, WA), Caitlin Camilliere (Amesbury, MA), Kyle Finnell (Kingston, TN). Photo: Dave Weber ’15
How does one address a graduating class these days? With all of the upheaval and unrest tearing across the globe, what does one say to inspire and motivate, rather than parading a series of doom-and-gloom infused scenarios and statistics? Ask Abra Lee to be your commencement speaker, that’s how. The horticulturist, historian, arborist, writer, founder of the organization Conquer the Soil, and author of Conquer the Soil: Black America and the Untold Stories of Our Country’s Gardeners, Farmers, and Growers, spoke to the Conway Class of 2022 for the school’s 49th commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 25. Pulling from her own experiences coming up in the world of landscape design, Lee outlined several practical and positive approaches that resonate well with the volatile nature of our times, emphasizing the need to be flexible, open-minded, and realistic.
“Failure comes full circle,” she told the class as she recounted her early struggles to find a path for herself in her career. “Things happen. Use that as your catalyst to move forward.”
Lee also encouraged the graduates to think strategically and to lean on networks and resources as they expand their work. “Access to money, resources, and power do matter. Don’t let people be dismissive of that.” This advice is particularly applicable to Conway grads, many of whom, through their planning and design work, will encounter municipal, legal, and economic power structures that will require astute navigation. “Never stop asking for help,” she advised students, stressing the importance of social capital and adding that it’s equally crucial to pay it forward when they find themselves in the position to help others.
Addressing the need for today’s graduates to be nimble and responsive, Lee said, “Re-invention is okay. Some of you know what you want to do, some of you may not really have a clue, and some of you may want to do so many things, and all of that is okay.” She recounted the many jobs she has held in her career, and how they brought depth to her experience and knowledge, increasing her future opportunities as opposed to limiting them.
Trustee Mollie Babize ’84 started the celebration by invoking a recent talk given by Robin Wall Kimmerer and imagining “Conway” as a verb and this year’s class as its future tense. “The education taught here doesn’t end,” Babize said. “It’s a process, and a life-long endeavor. It involves an ebb and flow, learning and unlearning, and acknowledging that we always have more to learn.”
Also speaking was ecology faculty Bill Lattrell, who is retiring after thirty-two years at Conway. “I couldn’t have picked a better class with which to end my teaching career,” he said. “I’ve witnessed how kind you all are, how much you care for each other, and how much you value our planet, the Earth. In many ways you have revived my faith in humanity.”
During the ceremony, in a time-honored Conway tradition, the eighteen members of the class of 2022 presented one another with a Master of Science in Ecological Design from Conway’s intensive, ten-month graduate program in sustainable landscape planning and design. Each student introduced one of their classmates, which helped everyone in attendance get to know the graduates (and often prompted laughter and tears). The class recounted their experiences working both independently on a total of eighteen small scale fall projects, and in teams on a total of fifteen winter and spring community projects, which ranged from an outdoor classroom design to a small town climate resilience plan, to two separate food system analyses: a spatial analysis for an urban food system, and a regional food economy study in a more rural setting.
Climate change is often depicted as a battle to be won, rather than the dynamics of a continuously evolving system to which we belong, and within which we must also evolve and adapt. Mollie Babize summarized Conway’s approach well when she said, “The students learn to design in support of the underlying ecosystems. This is design with the land, not on the land. Ideally, this is planning with community, not for community.” This process can only be stewarded by people who understand that failure, collaboration, and re-invention are all essential components. Conway is proud to have graduated a cohort of ecological designers who will bring their skills into a world in need of them, now more than ever.